“The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” Like “a screaming comes across the sky” and “call me Ishmael,” it is one of the great opening lines in Western Literature. So begins The Gunslinger, the final journey of Roland Deschain, the quest for The Dark Tower.
For an author whose work is as frequently adapted as Stephen King, it has been a long and uncertain way from page to screen. The Dark Tower, a decades-spanning series that directly crosses over with nearly all of King’s expansive bibliography, has been in some form of development or another for over a decade. At one point J. J. Abrams was set to direct, later Ron Howard became involved, until finally it ended up in the lap of Nikolaj Arcel: a celebrated but obscure Danish filmmaker.
It had been so long and so discouraging a production that I had long since given up hope of ever seeing it come to fruition. And even when it did get a release date, I had little expectation that it was going to be any good. When a studio talks about how they “reimagined” an author’s magnum opus, it rarely ends well for the film.
But here we stand, four months out from release and in the wake of the film’s first trailer. And I have to say, despite my guarded expectations and its indeterminate production, the movie looks as good as I could have ever hoped for.
The story follows Roland Deschain, the last in a long line of Gunslingers: an order of knights that have guarded the land of Gilead and the Dark Tower — the epicenter of all realities — since time immemorial. He chases down “the man in black” — a dark sorcerer who goes by many names — in his quest to topple the tower and reign pandemonium down on every world.
Roland is joined by an unlikely trio: a boy named Jake, a junkie named Eddie and a legless woman with multiple (often murderous) personalities named Susannah. Over the course of seven novels and innumerable tie-ins, they make their way through the crumbling, paninfinite worlds held up by the Dark Tower, including the settings for The Stand and Salem’s Lot.
It’s a weird, disjointed epic that uses stories ranging from It to Insomnia as critical, narrative lynchpins, and somehow the movie — which doubtless lacks the film rights to many of the necessary novels — seems to have everything in hand. Roland is played by the impressive Idris Elba and Randall Flagg, the haunting man in black, is portrayed by the menacing Matthew McConaughey. The heretofore unknown Tom Taylor portrays Jake in what is bound to be a career-making turn for the young actor.
I understand now why the production was always keen on describing the movie as a “reimagining” of the first novel rather than an adaptation of it. While at a glance it appears to have everything it needs from The Gunslinger — a lone hero, his eternal nemesis, the “apotheosis of all deserts” and a towering end-point — it seems to draw heavily on the second novel, The Drawing of the Three. That is where Roland travels to Earth to gather his allies against the forces that seek to level the Tower brick by brick.
And I have to say, from what little I have seen of the film in the trailer, the decision appears to be an inspired one. For one, it cuts out some of the frankly unfilmable parts of the first novel, including when Jake, an minor, being assaulted by a succubus. It also replaces the long stretches of silence with stakes-raising action in the “real world.”
The film appears to keep to the heart of Roland and Jakes relationship: a father-son dynamic that transforms a child into a young man. He teaches Jake the ways of the Gunslinger: how to aim, how to shoot, how to kill. And as long as the film understands that, everything else — from show-stopping shoot-outs to potentially worlds-ending calamities — should fall into its rightful place inside of their story.
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